William Butler Yeats was a master poet in that he was able to convey tremendous depth of meaning within his poetry while keeping the subject relatively tightly confined. Yeats truly understood the modern concept of permitting a poem to stand on its own as a piece of art open to individual interpretation. His poems, such as “When You are Old,” seem to address a specific person involved in a precise situation and thus could not apply to others.
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However, this poem reaches out to all generations because of the way he uses tone, imagery and metaphor. Essentially, the poem traces the woman’s imagined feelings as an older woman looking back on a life in which she followed superficial adoration instead of sincere affection. In Yeats’ “When You are Old,” the speaker warns an unknown young woman of the regrets she will have as an older woman while the poem sends a message to all generations regarding the importance of choosing love through imagery, tone and metaphor.
The poem begins it appeal to the reader through the careful imagery incorporated within its lines. The poem opens by presenting the reader with a mental image of an old woman dozing in a cozy chair by a warm fire reading. This image is constructed throughout the first three lines through phrases such as “old and grey,” “full of sleep,” “nodding by the fire” and “slowly read” (1-3). From this point, the focus shifts to an image of the woman as a young woman – “the soft look / your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep” (3-4). The speaker reminds the woman of the many admirers “with love false and true” (6) she had who paid tribute to her happy moods and external beauty.
This insincerity of the admirers is immediately contrasted against the image of “one man” who loved her “changing face” (7-8), indicating a man who was sincere in wanting to spend his life with her and watch as her face changed with the marks of time. This image suggests that the woman, in not choosing wisely, is now left lonely and alone, despairing over the fire trying to capture a lost love out of the embers of her dying fire. This is suggested as he suggests she is bending over the “glowing bars” of the fire and how her love “hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (9, 12). Thus the imagery takes the reader from the present to the past to the present to the past in quick succession as the speaker takes the female listener from youth to age to youth to age.
Tone (meter) of poem
The warning note in the poem comes through in the arrhythmic meter and often hollow sounds that establish a mournful tone. The meter used in the poem is iambic pentameter, which means that each line has five unstressed beats alternated with five stressed beats. This means each line has an odd number of stressed beats to it which introduces a sense of expectation in the reader. This idea of expectation is encouraged in the way that the speaker allows his thoughts to travel from the end of one line over into the next. Although this kind of meter can be used to make people feel very secure and easy in the beat, it is often interrupted by throwing off the stressed beats every once in a while.
This adds a sense of excitement to the poem and a sense that there is hope for the woman to still change her mind. The tone is also set by the way that the poem uses sound. It lulls the reader into an almost hypnotic state within the first line using words with soothing /o/ sounds in ‘you’, ‘old’, ‘full’ and ‘of’. It keeps the reader awake by interspersing sudden-sounding changes in sound in the first and second stanzas. This is using the long /e/ sound in the first stanza, through such words as ‘sleep’, ‘read’ and ‘deep’. The second stanza focuses on the long /a/ sound with the bracketing rhyming words ‘grace’ and ‘face’. The third stanza remains subdued but with a hint of hope as more variety in sound is introduced throughout the stanza.
Through the imagery and the tone, a number of metaphors are created that enable the poem to make connections with the generations that have read it since it was written. In the first stanza, a connection is made between sleep and death as the poem conjures the picture of the old woman nodding by the fire and then dreaming. This idea is reinforced by the ‘shadows’ mentioned in the fourth line. Although they are intended to indicate the depth of the girl’s soul, these shadows also suggest the shadow of death that hovers over older people, particularly when they’re dozing. This metaphor is extended into the second stanza as the speaker mentions the woman’s ‘pilgrim soul” (7), which indicates a soul, not a body, wandering.
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From this point, there is only sorrow, bending down and ending within a ‘crowd of stars’ (12). As she bends over the fire, the connection is finally made between the woman and the speaker, understanding that the poet is discussing the death of love as the fire dies, the embers turn to ashes and the sparks fly out into the sky never to be recaptured. Once rejected, the speaker indicates, love will not return and life will remain lifeless and dull.
Although Yeats uses tone, meter, imagery and metaphor to allow his speaker to address a woman with a warning against rejecting him, the poet manages to address generations to come with a warning to choose sincere love. He uses imagery to move the lady listener forward and backward in time, increasing and decreasing her age in an attempt to get her to think of things from a different perspective while also encouraging readers to shift their perspective.
Tone and meter contribute to the meaning of the poem by using smooth vowel tones and regular beat that soothe and comfort while interrupting things with sudden long sounds and beat shifts that cause the woman, and the reader, to pay close attention. This enables the careful metaphor to emerge and highlight the central theme of the poem, which is a warning to choose sincere love rather than frivolous momentary adoration.
Yeats, William Butler. “When You are Old.”.